Wilderness Ranger Ryan Lawrence on funding refuge in the alpine lakes of the North Cascades:
Pick up any recreational map of north-central Washington, and you’ll see it freckled with alpine lakes. They’re not the only reason that Washington is a wondrous land, but they’re a big one. It’s easy to describe them as beautiful, and they are, but part of their allure is in the contrast of their surroundings. The sun doesn’t always shine, and it ain’t always peaches and milk out there. The deep woods can be baleful and dark and the mountains can take on a reptilian look, the spines of them like terrible crouching dinosaurs. It’s true that a tired body and mind are more receptive to fear and more susceptible to danger.
Which is why a lake destination is a sight to behold, it’s a desert oasis, the perfect tonic for a footsore traveler. Here’s something that can sustain me, you think when you see one, as it already does to the virid life inside of it and at its border.
The approaches to most of the North Cascades lakes are fairly similar, having a three-act drama to them: gradual rising of action (climbing); the climax (the crux); falling action and resolution (the destination). A lot of the times it’s a cakewalk to the lake’s spur trail, but you shouldn’t be deceived by this. Getting there is hard and requires work and concentration with each step. The ascent can get real steep real quick, but soon you’ll start to see more and more chunks of blue sky through the branches. Soon you’ll hear the drainage stream of the lake, your heart rate quickening and your load feeling just a little bit lighter. You know you’re close. Keep pushing. Suddenly you see the saddle, you’re sure of it this time (unlike the umpteen times you’ve wrongly eyeballed it during the climb, then cursed), you step past the stunted trees, acres of sky inviting you over. Then, at the top, a scene change: the wind delivers a hook, right on cue, and knocks your hat off. Silence, as your eyes record the sun-dazzled water, your muscles full of snap and vigor again. A smile is the appropriate response at this point, and usually occurs involuntarily.
There’s one lake that surprised me, though it shouldn’t have, not really. It’s not named on a map, but I’ve christened is Upper Mini-Martin. It surprised me because it was so different in character than its lower-altitude brethren. It’s like a banished, misunderstood genius, sort of. Mason suggested I go look for it, as there’s not a trail cut to it, that it could be an “adventure”. That’s a magic word for me, and that’s all the persuasion it took for me to seek it out. Following his advice, I followed Upper Mini-Martin’s drainage to its source, and once the way became near-vertical, I suspected that I was about to climb into something cool.
Upper Mini-Martin is one of the four Martin Lakes, but most visitors only see the first lake they reach, which is also the biggest and for the sake of clarity here, we’ll call Mack Daddy Martin. This is a fine lake, with Martin Peak to the west, great campsites all around it, and bald eagles whistling back and forth. The next lake is, well, not exactly one I would post on Facebook. It’s a sad little tree-littered bog, and we’ll call that Greenland Martin (an homage to the Viking’s ironic nomenclature) and move on. Mosey on up the trail and you find Lower Mini-Martin, a precious little thing tucked into a meadow, a pond is what it is. I hear the fishing’s great here.
I had these lakes on my mind as I made my way up, hopscotching rocks and crisscrossing logs on the drainage. My clothes were soaked through by the morning dew and sweat, but it was worth it. To paraphrase Muir, my coarse words can’t adequately convey what I experienced when I got to Upper Mini-Martin: water clear as air; rock talus in a seemingly deliberate arrangement; an echo of an eagle’s whistle. Maybe because it felt so remote, so secret, so unexpectedly bejeweled, that I felt something like magic, something I can’t put a word to, a feeling too abstract based on my experiences to name, yet too concrete too ignore.
I grew up in the flat marshlands of coastal NC, and I remember the feeling of wonder inside the small square of piney, briared woods I was allowed to explore near my home. I also played a lot of video games, the non-linear, role-playing variety, and a huge component of those games was exploring some fantastical landscape, which supplemented those early explorations across the road. The Legend of Zelda was one of my favorites because of its secret lakes where a faery could emerge and deliver you a shield, a shiny new sword, or some life-giving potion. “Man, that would be cool to see something like that,” I’m sure I said more than once. Many, many years later, thousands of miles away, I have finally seen “something like that”. There were no faeries, but I dove in just to be sure, my skin immediately reddening from the glacial coldness of the water. I came out as clean as I’ve ever been, my life’s energy fully replenished.